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Black History Month
2023 Honoree

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Brett Jefferson

Brett Jefferson

Data Scientist, Team Lead

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Where are you from?

I was born in Baltimore, MD. I grew up between Baltimore and Salisbury, in urban and rural environments. I gained an early appreciation for the diversity of people and ways of living. I think that this experience helped me to acclimate to the change in culture and racial makeup of graduate school in Indiana. Not to say it was an easy adjustment, but only that seeing a wider range of backgrounds, social priorities, and economics aided in finding commonalities when I moved to rural Indiana.


Please describe an experience (or 2) that helped you discover/ cultivate your interest in the mathematical sciences.

I always enjoyed puzzles as a kid. From jigsaws to hand puzzles to riddles, my parents were happy to see me settled with a brain teaser over causing trouble in the neighborhood. I think this was one of the major reasons that mathematics was appealing to me. I’m always excited to see a pattern, have an intuition for what it is, and then rigorously prove that my intuition was right (or more often wrong). The faculty at Morgan State also encouraged me in mathematics. One of the best things for me was that during my first year in the math department at Morgan, I was enrolled in a research program and studied a variety of areas with Dr. Marshall Cohen. It empowered me to own my own research puzzle and solve it AND be called a mathematician. Truly wonderful feeling.


What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your career in the mathematical sciences?

While I haven’t solved large problems in mathematics, I am very proud of my role in influencing other mathematicians and scientists to pursue scientific endeavors, feel valued, and feel like a member of a community. As I said above, I really enjoy solving puzzles. Rather than following trends in the sciences, I’ve instead stumbled on the puzzles that fascinate me most and worked hard to try and understand them. I think that this has helped others to contextualize their own interests and feel proud that they are solving THEIR own problem. When someone that I’ve mentored has a major accomplishment, I take pride.


What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your personal life?

Personally, there have been many proud moments. Most of those moments involve me taking on a new challenge outside of my comfort zone. I’m proud of the volunteer work I’ve done with Habitat for Humanity, tutoring, and community activities. When in graduate school I learned to do many home repairs (electric, plumbing, and drywall) in my first home. And today, I’m proud to serve the Black Mathematician community in my role on the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM) board of directors. 


Please share some words of wisdom/inspiration.

I want to speak to the graduate students struggling in their programs. In many cases, it’s not a question of whether can you finish, but do you want to finish. You are talented. There’s no question about that. But a Ph.D. requires not just talent, but in many cases a whole change in your approach to work, a maturity to understand your limits, and the understanding of yourself to know when a new path must be forged. Graduate school is a pressure cooker where you must learn a lot of technical material in a short period of time. It’s important to not just work hard, but know when to play and take a break. Figuring out who you are, how to work hard, and when to NOT work will be a valuable lifestyle lesson that will serve you in your post-graduate career.